When that first cough starts to persist and mucus starts to drip, it can be anxiety-inducing to figure out how and where to receive the most affordable health care. If you need to see a doctor that day but are not willing to wait hours in the emergency room, you could be out of luck as the median wait to get an appointment with your primary care doctor is usually six days, according to the Medical Group Management Association.
But today, urgent care clinics — not emergency rooms — address the need for quick, less-costly care.
"Emergency rooms have evolved over time,” said Sherm Syverson, the executive director of emergency and trauma at Sanford Health in Fargo and former executive director at F-M Ambulance Service Inc. who has worked in emergent care for more than 30 years. “Urgent cares didn't exist when I first started. The emergency room was the catch-all for everything and anything that didn't get treated during normal clinic hours.”
According to Consumer Reports, the number of urgent care facilities in the United States increased from 6,400 in 2014 to 8,100 in 2018, with another 500 to 600 expected to open. Some 24/7 urgent care centers function like satellite emergency rooms and incur similar costs, while other centers simply charge copays.
Urgent care clinics evolved because of congested doctor's offices and emergency rooms. The first of these clinics opened in the 1970s, according to the American Journal of Clinical Medicine. Syverson said their popularity increased in recent years because of people's awareness of their pocketbooks.
"People are self-educated now, so they know if they seek treatment at the emergency department for a sprained ankle, they could end up sitting and waiting until the guy with cardiac arrest is treated first," Syverson said. "They also know that an ER visit could cost significantly more than a visit to an urgent care clinic."
He said urgent care facilities usually deal with a wide variety of health care concerns such as stomach pain, respiratory distress or chest pain. During 2017, Sanford Health Medical Center in Fargo and urgent care clinics had more than 180,000 visits, according to sanfordhealth.org/news.
“Now that urgent care is open later hours, people — including my family — who are not in the medical field think of the urgent care clinic first if they are experiencing anything from sore throat, sprained ankle, minor fracture or lacerations requiring stitches even," Syverson said.
People often research their own signs and symptoms and self-diagnose whether they have an emergency problem, he said. If it is less serious, they can make a better decision on where to go for care, but it is important for people to call an ambulance or visit the emergency room when they are in doubt.
"You'll know if there is something going on with you that is life-threatening and you need a quick trip to the ER or an ambulance ride," he said. "But even in the event of an ambulance visiting your home, if you're starting to feel better after the paramedics have checked you out then you have the right to decline a ride to the hospital."
Whenever visiting any clinic or hospital, Syverson said people should always bring three items: a state-issued ID like a driver's license or passport, proof of health insurance and payment for the copay. The copay is a fixed amount for a covered service, paid by a patient to the provider of service before receiving the service. Debt.org says a visit to an urgent care clinic will cost an average of $30 to $50 depending on the insurance plan and type of care needed.
During the colder months, urgent care clinics are often the front lines for diagnosing and treating influenza. Nationwide, flu season is considered to run between October and May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But whatever health concern you may have, urgent care clinics are there to help find relief when seeing a primary care doctor isn't possible.